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CBS LIKELY TO REMAIN ON SIDELINES IN NFL TELEVISION PICTURE

The Buffalo Bills and the rest of the National Football League should get a TV rights fee increase of about 50 percent. The odds of CBS getting back in the game are much lower.

That's the word from CBS Sports President Sean McManus, whose hiring last November was viewed as part one of the network's plan to get back the NFL after losing it to Fox almost four years ago.

The current NFL contract is entering its last season. Though there has been some published speculation that the rights fees for the NFL could double in the new deal to be determined shortly, McManus said that is an inflated figure.

"I would be very, very surprised if the rights fee doubles," McManus said. "If the rights fee doubles, somebody would be willing to pay a whole lot more than CBS is willing to pay right now. I think that a 50 percent increase is a realistic target."

Since the rights fees have an impact on the salary cap, players like Bruce Smith want their share of the new pot of gold.

Ever since he took his new job, McManus has tried to educate people into how the NFL sets its television prices. McManus explains that the word "negotiations" is a misnomer since the NFL gives each of the networks it is partnered with a price. The nets can either accept or say no and risk what happened to CBS four years ago.

In other words, CBS can't act as a stalking horse to drive up rights fees because it can't get in the game unless another network first passes.

"There is not a number I can come up with, I don't think, that is so high that everybody else would say no and we'd say yes," McManus said. "And that's the scenario that has to happen."

Of course, the NFL could ask its partners -- NBC, ESPN, TNT, Fox and ABC -- for an exorbitant amount of money and hope the networks would pay to avoid letting CBS back in.

"If they do that and the other networks think we'll pay that, they'll say yes," McManus said.

He notes that Fox's blowout bid of four years ago helped Rupert Murdoch develop his network and raise its value considerably. Since CBS is an established network, McManus maintains that overpaying won't give it any benefit. However, what if CBS viewed overpaying this time as the price it had to pay to get back a property that it carried for 38 years and could keep for that long again?

"Yeah, possibly," he said. "The problem is if we had to do it over again, we would have paid the $395 million Rupert paid. The other networks are in the same frame of mind so therefore what we would consider a blowout bid I think they would match."

Of course, McManus' prediction that the NFL rights fee increase should be limited to about 50 percent could be somewhat self-serving. Perhaps he wants the other networks to believe that CBS won't overpay to get back in the game on the hope they'll reject higher NFL bids.

Gelbart revved up

Attention, NASCAR fans. On Aug. 3, pay-cable network Showtime will premiere the two-hour pilot of a new series, "Fast Track," about stock-car racing. It stars Keith Carradine, Fred Williamson and Tristan Rogers.

It was written by Larry Gelbart of "M*A*S*H" fame and his stepson, Gary Markowitz.

Showtime also is planning a movie focusing on New York Yankee manager Joe Torre leading his team to the 1996 World Series title while his brother, Frank, waited for and got a heart transplant. According to the trade publication Variety, Paul Sorvino has been cast as Joe Torre.

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